Educational Challenges in Denmark

Written by Camille BOBLET—LEDOYEN

“Yes, Denmark may have the laurel of the happiest country in the world, but that does not mean that, as in every capitalist economy, everybody is happy.”[1]

Michael Roberts, 2022.

Education is a vital pillar of a nation’s development, and Denmark is renowned for its strong commitment to providing high-quality education. However, like any other country, Denmark faces its own challenges within its educational system. This article will explore the significant academic challenges that Denmark has encountered, examining their causes and potential solutions. The challenges facing the Danish education system undermine the idea of an open, inclusive society promoted in the 1980s and 1990s: the complex integration of ethnic minorities living in urban ghettos (Human Right Watch, 2021)[2]; the gradual deconstruction of the welfare state, to which Helle Thorning-Schmitt’s left-wing government made a major contribution between 2011 and 2014; a growing school malaise, with a school population that is either dropping out or depressed. Today, Denmark remains divided between two main trends: historical isolationism, which has seen Denmark withdraw from the European concert in recent centuries, skeptical of European integration (along with France, Denmark was one of the countries to reject the 2005 Lisbon Treaty in a referendum); progressive integration, with a membership of NATO and the Common Market, and the promotion of economic liberalism. The issue of migrant reception crystallizes this division in Danish society: the current government’s desire to transfer asylum seekers to a “third country” is a sign that historical isolationism is gaining ground.

Children attend support lessons. Photo by Magnus Fröderberg

Education System

Denmark’s education system has witnessed ongoing debates regarding assessment methods and standardization. Critics argue that the emphasis on standardized testing and rigid curriculum frameworks can limit teachers’ autonomy and creativity, leading to a narrow focus on exam preparation. There is a growing recognition of the need for a more holistic approach to assessment, encompassing students’ diverse skills and abilities. Recent reforms have aimed to reduce the reliance on high-stakes testing and promote more formative and individualized assessment practices.

Classes in Denmark generally have no more than twenty pupils, and schools are financed by local taxes, which can lead to greater or lesser territorial disparity. The 2013 reform increased school hours from 21 to 30 per week, and teachers were encouraged to spend more time at school. The April 2013 reform took place against a backdrop of strikes but finally came into force at the start of the September 2014 school year. The difficulties encountered by public schools (longer working hours for teachers with no salary compensation, a curriculum that depends on the region) have favoured private schools: today, 15% of Danish pupils attend private classes.[3].

Smooth transitions between different educational levels can significantly impact student success. Denmark faces challenges in ensuring a seamless transition from primary to secondary education and from secondary to higher education or vocational training. Inconsistencies in curriculum alignment, lack of guidance and counselling, and limited cooperation between educational institutions have been identified as obstacles. Efforts to enhance coordination, establish clear pathways, and provide comprehensive support during transitional phases are essential to address this challenge.

Also, while Denmark has made significant progress in digitalizing its education system, there are still challenges to overcome. Access to digital resources, teacher professional development, and the digital divide among students require attention. Ensuring equitable access to technology, providing training to educators, and integrating digital tools effectively into the curriculum are crucial steps to harness the potential of technology in enhancing learning outcomes.

While Denmark offers free tuition for Danish and EU/EEA students, there are still financial considerations and costs associated with higher education. While tuition fees are generally covered for Danish and EU/EEA students, the cost of living can be a significant financial burden. Expenses such as accommodation, food, transportation, and study materials can add up, particularly for students who need to relocate or live in high-cost areas such as Copenhagen. These living expenses can create challenges for students from low-income backgrounds. Non-EU/EEA students are required to pay tuition fees to study in Denmark. These fees can vary depending on the institution, program, and level of study. The tuition fees for non-EU/EEA students can be substantial, making it difficult for some individuals to afford higher education in Denmark. However, it is essential to note that Denmark offers a range of scholarships and grants to support international students, mitigating some of the financial barriers. Finding affordable and suitable housing can be challenging for students, especially in cities with high rental prices. Accommodation costs can consume a significant portion of a student’s budget, leaving limited funds for other essential expenses. To address this issue, Denmark provides student housing options at affordable rates through housing associations, student dormitories, and rental subsidies. However, the demand for student housing often exceeds the available supply, creating additional challenges for students.

Mental Health

The mental health of Danish schoolchildren is a major concern. According to a report by the Human Practice Foundation and a second by the OECD (Learning Compass 2030),

“The treatment of children with stress increased by 900% from 1995-2015. Studies also show a clear correlation between children who are unhappy/discontented and absenteeism/learning patterns. This contributes to the fact that in 2018 32% of Danish students nationally were not deemed ready for higher education in eighth grade and that in 2019 10% of the students in the ninth grade did not complete the primary school’s mandatory exams.”[4]

The significant increase in the treatment of children with stress suggests a growing prevalence of stress-related issues among Danish students. Factors such as academic pressure, social expectations, and personal challenges contribute to heightened stress levels. These stressors can impact students’ well-being, engagement, and academic performance. The statistic indicating that 32% of Danish students were not deemed ready for higher education in eighth grade highlights a significant challenge in preparing students for future educational pursuits. This readiness is crucial for smooth transitions and successful academic trajectories beyond primary school. Factors such as academic preparation, skill development, and socio-emotional well-being play a role in students’ readiness for higher education.

A reading room in the State and University Library (Statsbiblioteket- now Royal Danish Library) in Aarhus, Denmark. Photo by ©Villy Fink Isaksen, Wikimedia Commons, License cc-by-sa-4.0

Socio-economic Disparities

One significant challenge in Danish education is socioeconomic disparities, which can impact student achievement and perpetuate social inequality. Research has shown that students from disadvantaged backgrounds tend to have lower educational outcomes compared to their more privileged counterparts. Factors such as parental education, income, and cultural capital play a crucial role in shaping a student’s educational trajectory. To address this challenge, Denmark has implemented various initiatives, including targeted support programs for vulnerable students, increased access to early childhood education, and reforms aimed at reducing educational inequality.

Socioeconomic disparities can also influence students’ cultural capital, which refers to the knowledge, skills, and behaviours that are valued in the educational system, albeit not Danish specificity per se. Students from disadvantaged socioeconomic backgrounds tend to have lower academic achievement than their more affluent peers. This achievement gap manifests in various ways, including lower test scores, higher dropout rates, and reduced access to higher education. Socioeconomic factors such as parental education, income, and occupation significantly influence a student’s academic performance and educational outcomes. Early childhood education is crucial in laying the foundation for a child’s educational journey. However, socioeconomic disparities often result in unequal access to high-quality early education. Children from disadvantaged backgrounds may have limited access to preschool programs, which can affect their readiness for formal schooling. Denmark has implemented initiatives to increase access to early childhood education, such as providing subsidies and support for vulnerable families. However, there is still a need for further efforts to ensure equal opportunities for all children. Students from disadvantaged backgrounds may face limited access to educational guidance and support systems, including career counselling and tutoring services. This lack of support can hinder their educational and career aspirations. Providing comprehensive guidance and support services to students, particularly those from disadvantaged backgrounds, can help level the playing field and enhance their educational opportunities.

“Across most OECD countries, socio-economic status influences learning outcomes more than gender and immigrant status. In Denmark, the proportion of children from the bottom quartile of the PISA index of economic, social and cultural status (ESCS) achieving at least PISA level 2 in reading in 2018 was 22% lower than that of children from the top ESCS quartile, a smaller share than the OECD average of 29%.”[5]

Integration of Immigrant Students

The integration of immigrant students in Denmark is a critical aspect of the Danish education system.

Denmark has experienced an influx of immigrants and refugees in recent years, which has presented challenges in integrating these students into the education system. Language barriers, cultural differences, and limited educational backgrounds can hinder the academic progress of immigrant students. Denmark has implemented strategies such as language immersion programs, intercultural awareness training for teachers, and initiatives to promote multicultural understanding among students to address this issue. Immigrant students may face educational gaps due to differences in curriculum, educational systems, or limited educational opportunities in their countries of origin. To address these gaps, Denmark has implemented bridge programs that provide additional academic support and resources to help immigrant students catch up with their peers. These programs focus on core subjects and provide individualized assistance to ensure a smooth transition into the Danish educational system. However, further efforts are needed to enhance integration and provide equal educational opportunities for all students.

The biggest problem for the integration of foreign immigrant students is the gradual abandonment of the policy of openness and inclusiveness that made Denmark a dynamic country. Far-right and conservative parties are scoring historically high: the nationalist Danish People’s Party was a coalition government member from 2001 to 2011 and from 2015 to 2019. This has led the liberal-conservative right to move closer to far-right themes by proposing a policy of defiance towards immigration. In a sign of distrust of European integration, a referendum was held in December 2015 on Denmark’s continued membership of Europol (confirmed by a slight majority of 53%). Since 2019, although the far right is not a member of the coalition government, the executive led by Mette Frederiksen has pursued a harsh nationalist immigration policy.[6].

Economic Challenges

Spending on social protection in Denmark is among the highest in the OECD but still lags behind countries such as Belgium, France and Finland. In fact, it’s not a question of spending but of the willingness to continue spending on social protection. Like many countries, Denmark faces a shortage of qualified teachers, particularly in certain subject areas and remote regions. The profession’s low attractiveness, heavy workload, and limited career advancement opportunities have contributed to this challenge. The Danish government has taken steps to address this issue, including increasing teacher salaries, providing professional development opportunities, and implementing recruitment campaigns. However, sustained efforts are necessary to attract and retain talented educators, ensuring a high-quality teaching workforce nationwide. Textbooks, course materials, and other study resources can be costly for students, particularly in fields that require specialized materials or equipment. The expense of study materials can pose a financial challenge, especially for students from low-income backgrounds who may struggle to afford these additional costs. Access to libraries, online resources, and institutional support for affordable study materials can help alleviate this barrier.

The issue is that Denmark has gradually deconstructed its welfare state. The Danish welfare state is not socialist or even communist in inspiration but liberal. Social protection is based on a universal model, i.e., it benefits all citizens without any prior income condition, as is the case in the Beveridgian or French welfare state system.[7]. The idea is to facilitate the integration of individuals into the capitalist market: not to reduce inequalities but to promote equal opportunities. Inequality reduction ultimately aims for the total extinction of pauperism, while equal opportunity aims to grant citizens a certain number of similar rights. Denmark’s neoliberal shift is part of a Scandinavian neoliberal shift of the 2010s. The Danish executive has chosen to “empower” its citizens by tightening access to social benefits. In the case of Danish students, for example, benefits for students with learning difficulties have been abolished altogether.  

The campus area of the Danish Design School photographed in 2010 while it was located in the former buildings of the Finsen Institute at Strandboulevarden in the Østerbro district of Copenhagen. Photo by Danmarks Designskole – The Danish Design School.

Conclusion and Recommendations

Denmark’s commitment to education is commendable, but it faces several challenges that require attention and targeted interventions. Addressing socioeconomic disparities, integrating immigrant students, attracting and retaining qualified teachers, reforming assessment practices, facilitating smooth transitions, and leveraging technology are critical focus areas.

Finding affordable and suitable housing can be a challenge for students, especially in cities with high rental prices. Accommodation costs can consume a significant portion of a student’s budget, leaving limited funds for other essential expenses. To address this issue, Denmark provides student housing options at affordable rates through housing associations, student dormitories, and rental subsidies. However, the demand for student housing often exceeds the available supply, creating additional challenges for students.

Increasing access to mental health services, providing comprehensive counselling programs, and integrating mental health education into the curriculum can help address stress-related issues and support students’ emotional well-being. Fostering a positive and inclusive school environment through anti-bullying initiatives, promoting social-emotional learning, and implementing effective behaviour management strategies can contribute to improved student happiness and engagement. Equipping teachers with training and professional development opportunities focused on mental health support, classroom management strategies, and fostering positive learning environments can enhance their ability to address student well-being and learning needs effectively. Given the scale of the problem, the Danish government should set up a dedicated budget to deal with the profound malaise of its pupils. More psychiatrists, reeducation of school time and fewer lectures are possible solutions.

Ongoing challenges persist in integrating immigrant students into the Danish educational system. Continued investment in language programs, intercultural training, tailored support services, and community engagement will further strengthen the integration of immigrant students and promote educational success and social cohesion in Denmark. Maintaining a policy of openness and inclusiveness must be a top priority for public authorities.

Addressing socioeconomic disparities in the Danish educational system requires a multi-faceted approach that focuses on providing equal opportunities, enhancing access to resources, and promoting inclusive practices. This involves implementing targeted support programs for vulnerable students, investing in high-quality early childhood education, improving infrastructure and resources in disadvantaged schools, expanding access to guidance and support services, and fostering a culture of high expectations and educational aspirations for all students.

By addressing these challenges, Denmark can further enhance its education system, foster equal opportunities for all students, and prepare its youth for the demands of the 21st century.

REFERENCES

Organization of Economic Cooperation and Development, “Denmark: ensuring equal opportunities for students across socio-economic backgrounds”, Education at a Glance 2021 : OECD Indicators, OECD, 2021.

Human Practice Foundation, “Main challenges and barrier to education in Denmark”, Human Practice Foundation, December 2021.

Roberts, Michael, “Denmark : the happy social-democrat model?”, Counterfire, November 2022.

Marcellin, Anastasia, “Why Denmark’s vaunted school system is showing signs of wear”, The Local, July 2019.

Math, Susheela, “Denmark’s “Ghetto Package” and the intersection of the right to housing and non-discrimination”, Human Rights Watch International, March 11th, 2011.


[1] Roberts, Michael, “Denmark : the happy social-democrat model?”, Counterfire, November 2022.

[2] Math, Susheela, “Denmark’s “Ghetto Package” and the intersection of the right to housing and non-discrimination”, Human Rights Watch International, March 11th, 2011. “Thousands of people across Denmark face eviction from their homes under the country’s “Ghetto Package,” which seeks to “eradicate” “ghettos” by 2030.  The State distinguishes “ghettos” from other areas with the same socio-economic factors on the basis that the majority of residents are of what it calls “non-Western background.” (literatim).

[3] Marcellin, Anastasia, “Why Denmark’s vaunted school system is showing signs of wear”, The Local, July 2019.

[4] Human Practice Foundation, “Main challenges and barrier to education in Denmark”, Human Practice Foundation, December 2021.

[5] Organization of Economic Cooperation and Development, “Denmark: ensuring equal opportunities for students across socio-economic backgrounds”, Education at a Glance 2021: OECD Indicators, OECD, 2021.

[6] The Danish government wants asylum seekers to be systematically sent to a third country (preferably far from Denmark: that’s the subtext) while their application is processed.

[7] In the Beveridgian system, social benefits are granted according to the needs of each social category, not indiscriminately. This system is the basis of social protection in France.

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